This is a (frank and admittedly biased) guide to creating a great one- to two-week vacation in Panama, with the assumption that Isla Palenque will be a major part of it. While Panama has a lot to offer, these itineraries are aimed to create a relaxing vacation that minimizes your time spent in transit, and allows you to get to know part of the country deeply instead of having a “go-go-go” vacation that scatters your time over too many locations.
Like Isla Palenque itself, this guide is aimed at the general adventure and nature enthusiast: if you have highly specific interests other than sportfishing, then just use the advice below for part of your vacation. (For example, if you really want a surf vacation, head straight to the Pedasi region, especially Playa Venao and Cambutal; if you are looking to dive for a week, either find a live-aboard near Isla Coiba or consider going somewhere other than Panama.)
Photo by Adam Elliott
One Week: 1 night in Panama City, and: 1 night in Boquete plus 5 nights at Isla Palenque, or 6 nights at Isla Palenque
If you have a week or less to spend in Panama, then you’ll want to spend most of it at Isla Palenque (as I wrote up top, this is an admittedly biased post ; ) . Spend no more than one night in Panama City, probably as a layover between one of your international and regional flight connections. The Chiriqui highlands town of Boquete is a great place to take a coffee plantation tour and see the high altitude cloudforests by zipline or on foot: this can be done as a long day-trip, or spend one night in the town. Then spend the rest of your trip at Isla Palenque in the Gulf of Chiriqui, enjoying our tropical forests, beaches, and other nearby islands. Since both Boquete and Isla Palenque are accessible via a flight to David, this plan minimizes your time spent transiting Panama and allows you to focus on enjoying the country.
Two Weeks: 3 nights in Panama City, 2 nights in San Blas, 2 nights in Boquete, and 7 nights at Isla Palenque
If you have two weeks, then spend a little more time in each of the places we recommend for the one-week vacation, and add some time in San Blas, the Kuna Yala’s comarca on the Caribbean side of Panama.
As Isla Palenque is a “passion project” for myself and most of the team members who work here, it of course tops my list as the main place to visit in Panama and both our resort website as well as countless posts here on the Ambler describe the island and it’s surroundings in detail.
Personal feelings aside, though, Isla Palenque truly does make a perfect location to experience most of what Panama has to offer: tropical forest filled with wildlife, pristine beaches and warm water, and a location in the Gulf of Chiriqui with easy access to great sport fishing, the islands of the adjacent national park, and the nearby indigenous tribe of the Ngobe-Bugle.
The only fundamentally different type of natural environment in Panama that is really missing from our island is the cloudforest, which can be visited in Boquete, conveniently accessible via the same flight to David. And while a visit to the Caribbean side of Panama provides a different kind of experience, it is not worth the hassle and travel time if you’ve only got a week (if you got two weeks, however, and want to see the Caribbean coast, I suggest San Blas, as described below).
While Panama City is probably the best city in which to live in Central America, and is something of a shopping mecca for much of South America, it doesn’t really have a lot to offer a tourist from North America or Europe with access to many of the world’s truly great cities. Accordingly, I strongly suggest that you use it primarily as a base for making short visits to its main sights for your layovers between flights to Chiriqui or San Blas (see my post The Panama City Layover for more information about this approach). If you have more than a week in Panama and/or are traveling through to get to multiple other locations, I still think there is no reason to spend more than two nights in a row in Panama City, and use your full day to make a day trip to see the Embera or do a Canal Transit.
The highlands in Panama are a fascinating place: as you rise in elevation, the temperature drops and you enter cloudforests that almost look Alpine, were it not for the palms and other tropical plants mixed in with the pines. If this kind of environment is of interest to you, Boquete makes a great home base for exploring them. While Isla Palenque offers a day trip to Boquete to experience the town and cloudforests, along with either a coffee plantation or zipline tour, you can save yourself about 2-3 hours of travel time by going there immediately before or after Isla Palenque instead of taking our tour.
The ideal way to do this is to take an early morning flight to David, go to Boquete for a long day trip (or take a later flight and spend the night), and then head to Isla Palenque afterwards. If you enjoy coffee, a coffee plantation tour is essential, along with some time in the cloudforest, hiking or ziplining. There are also a host of tour operators in Boquete who offer birdwatching, rock climbing, horseback riding, and similar activities.
While Isla Palenque offers a perfect experience of Panama’s Pacific coast, if you have more than a week in the country, the Caribbean side is different enough that you should make an effort to experience it. If you do want to visit the Caribbean side of Panama, San Blas is the place to go (skip Bocas del Toro unless partying with twenty-somethings seems like your ide of a good time). It is in the Guna Yala’s comarca (a semi-autonomous province) and its turquoise waters dotted with idyllic, flat palm-filled islands offer some truly spectacular snorkeling and swimming opportunities as well as visiting with the locals.
Most lodgings within the Comarca itself are very rustic, but there are some options nearby that offer a higher level of accommodations. Or, better yet, get a room on one of the charter sailboat companies that tool around the islands.
While it is possible to drive between Panama City and San Blas, it is probably easier to take flights via Air Panama, just as you would do between David and Panama City. And if the flight schedules require you to spend another night in Panama City, take my advice regarding Panama City layovers to make the most of your time.
I know the above is by no means complete, but I hope it provides a good framework for organizing your first trip to Panama. I’ve lived here part-time for about five years now, so if you’d like any more specific advice, please leave me a comment below or contact our Isla Palenque team at firstname.lastname@example.org